Environmental Portraits: the Work of Arnold Newman


Arnold Newman is remembered as one of the most accomplished portrait photographers of the twentieth century. His ‘environmental portraits’ paved the way for modern portrait photography.

His career began in 1938 working in chain portrait studios in Philadelphia, Baltimore and West Palm Beach but Newman would also begin experimenting in abstract and documentary photography on his own. After studying and running small photography studios in Philadelphia and Palm Beach, Newman made his entrée into the New York artistic world in the winter of 1941, through the auspices of the Social Realist painter, Raphael Soyer, who not only agreed to be photographed but gave him an introduction to others. In September of that year, having been ‘discovered’ by Beaumont Newhall, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art and Alfred Stieglitz, Newman’s work was exhibited at the A.D. Gallery alongside photography by Ben Rose.

Soon he was regularly working for Fortune, LIFE, Newsweek, and Harper’s Bazaar photographing, in particular, artists. In 1945, he was given his first solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled Artists Look Like This and by 1946 Newman had opened his first major studio. On occasion, he would work on location, engaging with the sitter’s personality in gradual but thorough ways. Newman made his first trip to Europe in 1954, undertaking a variety of assignments, photographing Alberto Giacometti in Paris, and Pablo Picasso in Vallauris. In 1949, and back in the United States, Newman provided the images of Jackson Pollock for a profile in LIFE magazine, and contributed much to the portrait photographer’s growing fame. In the same year, Newman met and worked with Frank Zachary, who was to become one of the great magazine art directors and editors of his generation. This began a twenty-five year professional relationship, which saw Newman work for Portfolio, Town & Country, and other significant periodicals.

Arnold Newman has been credited with popularising the ‘environmental portrait,’ which places the sitter in surroundings that suit their profession or skill. His famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky, for example, uses the piano to frame, and help define the famous composer. Newman said of his sitters, “it is what they are, not who they are, that fascinates me,” and he made his reputation photographing a wide range of highly influential cultural and political figures of the twentieth century, often in their most telling environments, be they at home or work. While commonplace today, this technique was not widely used in the 1930s when Newman was learning his craft. His archive comprises a catalogue of famous figures of the twentieth century including film stars, artists, politicians, sports heroes, and more. He photographed artistic icons such as Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Newman’s sophisticated eye and technical brilliance won him many fans, and he is remembered today as one of the great American photographers.

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